In her left hand, choreographer [node:14960145 link=Twyla Tharp;] holds sheet music for one of Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas. She scans the attentive faces of 15 members of [node:165343 link=Hubbard Street Dance Chicago;], which premieres her latest piece on Thursday 13. The dancers will run through the work’s first section and then be done for the day, their sixth working with Tharp in the studio. “Don’t keep me up too late tonight, everybody,” she warns, taking her seat next to Claire Bataille, a founding member of the company who now directs its school. (Bataille, who danced Tharp classics Baker’s Dozen, The Fugue, The Golden Section and Sue’s Leg in the early ’90s, was brought in by Tharp to assist in the creation of SCARLATTI.) Crystalline piano notes begin to rain down from the studio’s wall-mounted speakers.
A meticulously organized, highly detailed, ferociously fast dance takes place before us. It’s obviously freshly taught material; a few of the dancers suffer momentary brown-outs trying to remember all of their steps. I ask the company’s artistic director, Glenn Edgerton, who’s sitting next to me, how many sonatas Tharp has choreographed so far.
“Six, I believe,” he says, slightly wide-eyed. “It’s amazing what’s already transpired.”
One of the most prolific American dance makers, Tharp, 70, has had plenty of practice. The Indiana native’s résumé includes Broadway and film credits in addition to more than 135 works for the stage. Over the course of her nearly five-decade career, she’s also written three books and racked up 19 honorary doctorate degrees.
The dancers finish, and Tharp gives them about a dozen notes, most pertaining to scale, before letting them go. “Tighter here, please, more economical.… This has got to be like clockwork, like all the little gears in the clock.… Nothing big.… You’re lifting her up high and there’s no time for that.… Just think of passing through each other, like teeth in a comb.” She returns to her stool and sets down her notebook.
“But very good,” she concludes. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Two days later, the petite, silver-haired choreographer and I share a giant blueberry scone over coffees at 3rd Coast Cafe and Wine Bar. On tapping Bataille to assist, in addition to regular company rehearsal director Terence Marling, she says, “I always think it’s a good idea when you have what’s called ‘institutional memory’ in the room.” On narrowing down Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas, she explains she used her “good friend’s good ear”: Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko, who played Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Diabelli Variations for Tharp’s works to those pieces, recorded 19 Scarlattis from which she chose. On partnering again with Norma Kamali—whose black, white and red outfits for Tharp’s In the Upper Room (1986) are some of the most iconic costumes in American dance—she praises the fashion designer as a “great colorist,” adding that “working with Kamali gives me an excuse to go shopping.”
When I ask about dance artists, past or present, who’ve inspired her, she answers, “Darling, I read. I’m a known reader. That’s what I do with my time. I’m also a known person, still working, which means I’m in the gym, early, which means I do not go out at night, end of story.… I’m not in need of, or wanting, particularly, to know what other folk are up to.”
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago premieres Tharp’s SCARLATTI at the Harris Theater Thursday 13 through Sunday 16.